Society

"Legalise Drugs": Interview with ex-police-chief constable Tom Lloyd

Article published on Feb. 27, 2014
Article published on Feb. 27, 2014

Tom Lloyd worked in the po­lice force for three decades. Hav­ing wit­nessed first hand the harms as­so­ci­ated with drugs, the for­mer Chief Con­sta­ble has reached a de­fin­i­tive con­clu­sion; the drugs are not the prob­lem; the prob­lem is the law. He has de­voted his re­tire­ment to cam­paign­ing for change- namely le­gal­i­sa­tion and reg­u­la­tion. We chat­ted at his home in Cam­bridge 

So why is Tom Lloyd so con­vinced that drugs should be le­gal­ised? Very early on in his polic­ing ca­reer Lloyd re­alised some­thing was not right. He tells me how over­dos­ing ad­dicts were ‘thrown into a room cov­ered in bare mat­tresses which was known as ‘The Pit’’. They were then put back on their feet and kicked out, with no proper help or sup­port. Most drug ad­dicts have lived through se­ri­ous trau­mas, Lloyd ex­plains, ‘some­thing goes wrong in these peo­ple’s lives and blam­ing them for it is en­tirely the wrong ap­proach. Help­ing them out of their cir­cum­stances is not only the right ap­proach for them, but it’s also a bet­ter ap­proach for so­ci­ety. It’s much cheaper to in­ter­vene and to treat.’

What about recre­ational users? Peo­ple who smoke weed to relax or drop pills at par­ties? ‘Most peo­ple who con­sume drugs don’t have a prob­lem,’ Lloyd ex­plains, ‘if you’ve got a prob­lem with drug use, the last thing you need is to be ar­rested and pros­e­cuted, if you haven’t got a prob­lem, the last thing you need is to be ar­rested and pros­e­cuted.’ The phrase is con­cise and pithy but re­mark­ably pen­e­trat­ing. With a few words, Lloyd has re­vealed the per­ni­cious ab­sur­dity of our laws. Why don’t peo­ple see this? Lloyd blames media scare­mon­ger­ing. ‘There is a real dis­junc­tion which comes from the fact that we have this emo­tional fear of drugs and what they can do which turns us into ir­ra­tional be­ings,’ he says.

The Bal­loon Ef­fect

Lloyd ex­plains that drug laws are meant to make peo­ple safer but they ac­tu­ally put peo­ple at greater risk. By pro­hibit­ing drugs, the gov­ern­ment doesn’t con­trol them, but in fact re­lin­quishes the abil­ity to con­trol them. Peo­ple don’t die from tak­ing ec­stasy, for ex­am­ple, they die from the con­t­a­m­i­nants added by crim­i­nals who don’t care about their cus­tomers.  We talk about the preva­lence of so-called ‘le­gal-highs’, which claimed the lives of 52 peo­ple in the UK in 2012. ‘It’s this bal­loon ef­fect,’ says Lloyd, ‘in­stead of peo­ple using some­thing rel­a­tively safe like MDMA or cannabis, they’ll go to these un­known, highly dan­ger­ous prod­ucts.’ I ask whether every time some­one dies from drugs, it’s blood on the gov­ern­ment’s hands. Tom re­sponds, ‘It’s per­haps an emo­tive phrase, but could all the thou­sand or so over­dose re­lated deaths from heroin, methadone and other drugs be avoided? The an­swer to that is ‘yes, vir­tu­ally all of them.’’

One ar­gu­ment that often con­fronts Lloyd is that le­gal­is­ing drugs will en­cour­age more peo­ple to take them. He re­futes this, high­light­ing the ex­am­ple of Por­tu­gal, where drug use has halved ten years after de­crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion. In fact, Lloyd says the ar­gu­ment that ‘drug use will rise’ misses the point en­tirely. ‘The focus should be on re­duc­ing the harms rather than re­duc­ing the mar­ket, be­cause in my eyes you can’t re­duce the size of the mar­ket under drug pro­hi­bi­tion be­cause it ar­ti­fi­cially in­flates the price of drugs. Mar­i­juana is pretty much a weed. It’s only worth its weight in gold be­cause it’s pro­hib­ited.’ When he moved to leafy Cam­bridge, a dreamy lit­tle town with its spindly spires, Lloyd did not ex­pect to find hard drug use. But on one day alone, seven crack deal­ers were ar­rested. The mas­sive fi­nan­cial in­cen­tives cre­ated by il­le­gal­ity mean that drug mar­kets spread like wild fire.

The Low Lying Fruit

Keen to boost sta­tis­tics, the po­lice ar­rest non-vi­o­lent, easy tar­get drug deal­ers- ‘the low lying fruit.’ On the other hand the more ruth­less deal­ers flour­ish. It’s a kind of eco­nomic Dar­win­ism whereby the law ‘breeds the more vi­o­lent, the more cor­rupt­ing, the more cor­ro­sive, the more dan­ger­ous crim­i­nal gangs.’ Harm­less drug tak­ers are often the vic­tims of the law. Lloyd tells me how of­fi­cers would seize small cannabis plants and ar­rest their own­ers, often friendly hip­pies. The plants would be tended to and wa­tered on the po­lice sta­tion win­dowsill until they be­came bloom­ing, ver­tig­i­nous ev­i­dence that would stand up in court. The courts of the land; that ex­pen­sive de­ter­rent which doesn’t deter but in­stead stains the of­fender’s CV, lock­ing them out of the job mar­ket and into long term crim­i­nal­ity. It seems that for most drug users, pros­e­cu­tion by the law poses a greater po­ten­tial harm than the drugs them­selves.

‘The gov­ern­ment is not wag­ing a war on drugs but a war on peo­ple,’ says Lloyd. Un­like most wars, in this one, costly at­tri­tion is the gov­ern­ment’s de­sired out­come. Being ‘tough on drugs’ is a sure vote win­ner. The war must go on. Re­search by the char­ity Trans­form shows drugs cost the UK gov­ern­ment £16.75bn a year. Food for thought? Not in the eyes of the politi­cians. They have re­fused to con­duct cost analy­sis re­search in the UK for over a decade. ‘The lack of re­search is de­lib­er­ate,’ Lloyd tells me, ‘be­cause if gov­ern­ments did the re­search, they would ex­pose, if only in fi­nan­cial terms, how in­ef­fec­tive cur­rent law en­force­ment pol­icy is.’ Food for thought is the last thing needed by politi­cians who see the bil­lions spent on the war on drugs as a PR in­vest­ment rather than a so­cio-eco­nomic pro­ject. 

‘This failed pol­icy of drug pro­hi­bi­tion is a scourge of the whole world,’ con­cludes Lloyd pas­sion­ately, ‘it’s a mas­sive abuse of human rights.’ But change is on the hori­zon. Re­formed drug leg­is­la­tion in Por­tu­gal, the Czech Re­pub­lic, Uruguay, Col­orado and Wash­ing­ton has sent waves of ex­cite­ment and fris­sons of fear rip­pling through media and par­lia­ments across the globe. ‘This is going to hap­pen,’ says Lloyd, ‘there re­ally is now an un­stop­pable force for change.’ Once unas­sail­able dogma - ‘The War On Drugs’- is now up for de­bate.

Read the full in­ter­view here.